Heading into the November 3 election, a look at how Alaska judges get their jobs

Oct 14, 2020

The Alaska Judicial Council oversees the nomination of judges in the state's four judicial districts. So where do the voters come in?

Dillingham Courthouse, October 14, 2020
Credit Brian Venua/KDLG

Eight superior court, seven district court and two appellate judges are on the ballot in Alaska’s third judicial district, which stretches from the Aleutian islands to Bristol Bay, Anchorage and Cordova. 

But the process for judges to get on the ballot is far from self-explanatory. 

First, the Alaska Judicial Council oversees the nomination of judges. Then it sends a list of judges to the governor for appointment. The council then re-evaluates judges after their first terms, which last six years for the superior court and four years for the district court.

Then, the council issues recommendations on whether the judges should be retained. It’s left up to the voters to make the ultimate decision on whether each judge should keep their job.

Suzanne DiPietro, the executive director of the judicial council, said the system is meant to give power back to the people.

“In Alaska, judges serve set terms in office unless the voters give them permission to have an additional term in office,” she said. “The founders wanted to preserve the independence of the judiciary but also to give the citizens some say so if the judges should continue in office.”

DiPietro said the council also considers feedback from thousands of people the judges have worked with before issuing recommendations. The council’s surveys include attorneys, municipal and state police officers, social workers, guardians ad litem, court employees, and jurors. 

DiPietro also pointed out that judges aren’t allowed to run campaigns for their reelection.

“One of the things that I find not a lot of people are aware of -- even though judges’ names appear on the ballot, the judges are prohibited under the code of judicial conduct to campaign unless there’s an active campaign against them,” she said. 

The Alaska Judicial Council has unanimously recommended all judges on the November 3 ballot for retention. The council publishes recommendations and information on their website.

 

Correction:

This article was updated to include that two appellate court judges are also on the ballot statewide. 

 Contact the author at brian@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200